As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the country, causing grief amongst families, cattle rustlers took advantage of the lockdowns to wreak havoc on livestock causing farmers losses amounting to millions of Emalangeni, reports VUYISILE HLATSHWAYO
COVID-19 has heavily affected emaSwati livestock farmers since the outbreak of the pandemic, as lockdowns have facilitated a marked increase in cross-border stock theft. Covid restrictions have restricted livestock owners and their ability to monitor the movement of cattle and goats.
Following its story published on May 4 2021, Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism reported that 8 083, worth E36,8-million cattle were rustled across the eSwatini borders with Mozambique and South Africa from the areas along the eastern and western borders. The losses have had a devastating effect on small-scale emSwati farmers.
According to a parliamentary report on interventions on curbing cross-border stock theft tabled by Minister of Agriculture, Jabulani Mabuza, which the Inhlase has seen, Covid-19 has facilitated cross border cattle rustling. Due to the lockdowns, security and livestock owners have been restricted from crossing
According to the report, cross-border rustling is serious along the western eSwatini – South Africa border areas. These are Lundzi, Mpuluzi, Sigangeni, Malutha, and Sicunusa where “100s of animals are taken monthly”. It is also rife along the eastern eSwatini – Mozambique border in the areas such as Shewula and Sitsatsaweni.
The report also found stock theft was widespread – particularly theft for slaughter – within sSwatini,with the worst affected areas including Mliba, Mpala Ranch, Nyonyane, Malindza and peri-urban areas.
The cross-border cattle rustlers have found a South African market for the rustled cattle in public auctions. They reportedly sell them at auction in the saleyards in Ermelo, Belfast, Vryheid and New Castle in South Africa.
Cattle rustled into Mozambique end up in informal butcheries for immediate slaughter and breeding. Those that are rustled into Jozini, Mhlabuyalingana and other areas are only taken for breeding. Cross border syndicates are responsible for cross border cattle rustling, the report says.
These are alleged to include community members and corrupt livestock owners who scout for the vulnerable herds. Once a suitable herd is identified, the syndicate is given the information and assisted.
The parliamentary report further revealed that young emaSwati desperate for cash and youths from across the border are involved in stock theft. They are hired to take the targeted herd and drive it across to the neighbouring country. Cash is reportedly paid on delivery to the young people, whose role ends at delivery.
“There is a particular farm owner who is alleged to be the kingpin of one of the major cross border stock theft syndicates. His farm is closer to the western border of the country,” reads the report.
“This particular individual apparently has a family on the eSwatini side of the border as well. The family members own feedlots and butcheries in [South Africa]. Cattle belonging to the alleged kingpin’s family are spared from theft. This reinforces the allegations that the whole family is involved.”
Local abattoirs and butcheries – using lone wolves and sometimes children to drive the cattle to a place of slaughter in the bush are also involved in stock theft. Meat derived from illegal bush-slaughters is supplied to the formal and informal markets.
Government officials are also accused of falsifying records and facilitating theft. The report revealed that falsification includes removal of ear tags from stolen animals and tagging them afresh. The report also accuses them of falsifying affidavits of recovery of stolen cattle and issuing certificates of inspection when no inspection has taken place.
“There is also no proper cooperation between stakeholders, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and city councils. Lack of proper documentation of processes makes auditing emaSwati consuming increasing amounts of goat’s meat, the country has witnessed an increase in goat theft.
The report says that foreigners living in eSwatini buy live goats or meat supplied by the black market.The report found that their “religious arrogance” and ignorance of eSwatini’s’ laws and regulations governing stock removal, movement and slaughter perpetuate the theft. Although the report preferred not mention the foreigners, who buy the goats, there have been cases of the growing Asian community living in the country nabbed in possession of stolen goats.
The main beneficiaries from the plunder are big business syndicates and some commercial farmers in SA serving as conduits and hold the stolen stock prior to placement in auction sales. Butcheries, abattoirs and hawkers are also beneficiaries.
“There are many hands involved, each contributing a fraction to the crime,” the report says. “The kingpins do not touch or are not at all involved in the physical operation but manage the monetary side of the transactions. “Collecting evidence against the kingpins is not easy. Basically stock theft has become a white collar crime and should be confronted as such”.
The report says the problems are compounded by inadequate branding and identification of the stock. It is said that poor brand marks are easier to deface and obliterate. It is exacerbated by the officials that falsify records and aid the cattle thieves. Also, South African auctioneers admit stolen cattle for auction.
The jurisdiction of eSwatini’s Stock Theft Act and the authority of its police to enforce and arrest rustlers is limited to within the borders of the country. A police officer who lost a herd in Mhawu dip tank in Sigangeni area in the Hhohho region complained that the Act applies only to eSwatini but the main buyers are in RSA.
“Even if Eswatini cattle can be seen in RSA, the eSwatini police cannot do anything because they have no jurisdiction to repossess the cattle.
“They have to depend on the presence and cooperation of their South African counterparts,” he said.
The parliamentary report recommended that cross-border stock theft be recognised as a serious economic crime and dealt with through Interpol.